A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

Rating: 7 out of 10
Summary: For nineteen-year-old Harriet Morton, life in 1912 Cambridge is as dry and dull as a biscuit. Her stuffy father and her oppressive aunt Louisa allow her only one outlet: ballet. When a Russian ballet master comes to class searching for dancers to fill the corps of his ballet company before their South American tour, Harriet’s world changes.

Defying her father’s wishes and narrowly escaping the clutches of the man who wishes to marry her, Harriet sneaks off to join the ballet on their journey to the Amazon. There, in the wild, lush jungle, they perform Swan Lake in grand opera houses for the wealthy and culture-deprived rubber barons, and Harriet meets Rom Verney, the handsome and mysterious British exile who owns the most ornate opera house.

Utterly enchanted by both the exotic surroundings and by Rom’s affections, Harriet is swept away by her new life, completely unaware that her father and would-be finacé have begun to track her down. . . .

Commentary: This is what I call a Wish-Fulfillment Novel. Our heroine goes through a great struggle, she’s valiant, she’s humble, she’s likeable and we want her to win! And in the end, she does, and everything works out just great. She has a happy ending. All the right things happen in all the right places. There’s a lot of “coincidences”… but the kind of coincidences that just work out perfectly. Gives you a nice, warm feeling after you finish. With this kind of thing, it’s very easy to slip into stuff that’s too cliche, where the heroine becomes too good, and the happy ending is too happy. Sort of like a campy romance novel.

However, Ibbotson did a good job of not falling into that trap. I read a lot of Ibbotson’s work when I was younger, namely Which Witch? and Island of the Aunts and all those other good childhood classics. When I first this picked this up I thought it was something she’d written more recently for young adults, especially since the cover looked so new and modern. But in fact she wrote it all the way back in the stone age of 1985–which was long before I was born. She’s still got stuff coming out though, which is nice. I get so depressed when authors I like die and inevitably stop writing because they’re… dead (Madeleine L’Engle is a good example).

Back to the book. It was good. Entertaining. Not too sugary. In fact, it woke in me an interest in ballet–I’ve never seen a real production, and I’m determined to catch the next performance of Swan Lake that my city’s ballet company puts on. Ibbotson seems to have done her research well.

Youthful, romantic, interesting… good read.

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A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Rating: 8 out of 10
Summary: The gold thread shimmers in the fading light . . .

It promises Charlotte Miller a way out of debt, a chance to save her family’s beloved woolen mill. It promises a future for her sister, livelihood for her townsfolk, security against her sinuous and grasping uncle. It might even promise what she didn’t know she needed: lasting hope and true love.

But at what cost?

To get the thread, Charlotte must strike a bargain with its maker, the mysterious Jack Spinner. But the gleam of gold conjures a shadowy past — secrets and bonds ensnaring generations of Millers. And Charlotte’s mill, her family, her friends, her love . . . What do those matter to a powerful stranger who can spin straw into gold? (from book jacket)

Commentary: My experience with novels that are fairytale retellings has generally been positive–East by Edith Pattou, various others by Robin McKinley, Juliet Marillier, etc–and this was no exception. If you couldn’t get it from the summary, Dark as Gold is a retelling of the traditional Rumpelstilskin myth. You know, the one where the strange little goblin man spins straw into gold three times, and asks for the nameless girl’s firstborn child as payment. In order to save her baby, the girl has to guess his name, she wins through some supernatural method, yada yada, everyone’s happy, the end.

I’ve always had several problems with this story–number one being who the heck was Rumpelstilskin? Why did he want her baby? Why did he even offer to help the girl in the first place?

Bunce’s novel fleshes out the myth and has a great story to answer all the questions. This isn’t your usual happy-go-lucky fairy tale though. There’s a sinister undercurrent running throughout the story in the form of unexplainable, supernatural happenings, amplified by the skin-of-your-teeth desperation from Charlotte and her sister in their attempts to keep their beloved family mill running.

The story Bunce creates is well-formed and solid–I can’t find anything wrong with it. The setting is a nice little village in a world on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution; there’s a bit of Big Evil Factory vs. Cute Handmade Peasant Things. But the nostalgia and politicking was kept low and didn’t overshadow the main plot. It takes a little bit to get started, about a 100 pages or so, but once it gets going, it really gets going. The plot moved along really well, and the twists in the story, while I could occasionally predict and see coming, were still interesting and entertaining.

Charlotte was a good, strong heroine, although at times I couldn’t exactly understand a lot of her motives for making decisions that she did. Jack Spinner, aka Rumpelstilskin, was fascinating and gave a really great backstory to all the questions I asked earlier. The romance was also fun and engaging–something I really liked about what Bunce did was that in many novels, the marriage/big get-together is The End, the Final Climax, and doesn’t happen till near the wrapping-up of the novel. However, Bunce showed that romance can and does continue even after the wedding, that marriage isn’t the end of the romance story (as it is so often in so man novels), but that it continues on afterwards.

My final words are: Great story, great idea, great characters, definitely worth your time. It’s classified as Young Adult or Teen fiction, but adults will be able to enjoy this as well.

Born to Rock by Gordon Korman

from bn.comRating: 6 out of 10
Summary: Leo Caraway – president of the Young Republicans club, 4.0 GPA, future Harvard student – had his entire future perfectly planned out. That was, until the X factor. As in Marion X. McMurphy, aka King Maggot, the lead singer of Purge, the most popular, most destructive band punk rock has ever seen. As in Leo’s biological father.

At first, Leo is horrified to find out his real father is punk rock’s most notorious bad boy. Not only is he not a punk rock fan, but he believes the X factor (the Maggot blood in his veins) is a dangerous time bomb just waiting to explode. And sure enough it does – when Leo stubbornly defends the unlikeliest of people, thereby getting himself falsely accused of cheating on a test.

Because of the blemish on his record, the once-star pupil finds his scholarship to Harvard taken away. So he accepts a job as a roadie with Purge’s summer revival tour, all the while secretly hoping to convince King Maggot to pay his tuition. But life on the road is even crazier than Leo bargained for, and before the summer is over, he will finally discover the surprising truth about his dad, his friends, and most important, himself. (From bn.com)

Commentary: Really great, interesting idea. I also read this one a long time ago, back during the first week of June, I believe.

It’s a Young Adult novel (I went through a period where all my younger brother’s books from the library looked fascinatingly interesting, moreso than my own, more “mature” and “developed” novels) but it reads a little better than the YA novel I reviewed in my previous entry. It might be because the novel is set in a first-persion point-of-view, with our hero Leo narrating everything he sees, hears, and feels. I tend to enjoy first-person narratives a bit more, and Leo was an entertaining and pretty mature narrator, something the author did a good job with.

Leo’s dilemma was a cool idea, and his trip is (as expected) harrowing and life-changing and all about finding yourself! All that good teenage stuff. Lots of great twists, the ending being especially shocking. The romance was fine and fun, and everything was pretty modern (internet forums and message boards are an authentically youthful touch, and relatively important to the story) and convincing in its “teenage-ness”.

Not very substantial, but quick and entertaining.

Bunker 10 by J.A. Henderson

Rating: 8 out of 10
Summary: At eight o’clock in the evening, 24 December 2007, Pinewood Military Installation exploded. The blast ripped apart acres of forest and devastated the remote highland valley where the base was located. No official cause was given for the incident. Inside Pinewood were 185 male and female personnel–a mixture of scientists and soldiers. There were also seven teenagers. This is the story of their last day . . . (from book jacket).

Commentary: More evidence of my increasing laziness as the summer goes on–I finished this book and started the draft for this review on June 2nd, about a month ago. Goodness. Let’s see if I can remember anything about this story…

My first thought is that it was a fast-paced, high energy read. Had me hooked every step of the way, and not just with action and adventure, but very intelligent twists and turns. It’s meant for the Young Adult audience, and reads a bit like it too–I guess the dialogue’s just simpler, characters not as developed, and the romance is very tween-ish. Not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, but it was just something very obvious that was there throughout the whole novel.

However the Young Adult factor didn’t take away anything from the plot and action. It starts with the end: the destruction and assumed death of all the main characters (super intelligent genius kids held in a military installation), which can make you kind of think “Well, what’s the point of reading this novel if I already know what’s going to happen to all the characters?” However, Henderson’s unorthodox beginning merely draws you in, and makes you want to know how the characters ended up in their seemingly deadly predicament.

I can’t say anything else about the plot without giving away the whole story, but I would definitely recommend this. The author kept surprising me throughout the book–very well thought-out, and a good, fast read.